Of Blogs and Books (or from Solo to Silo); The Need for Lean in Publishing


As a kid, I always enjoyed writing and, at one point, dreamed of being a baseball beat writer, like the father  of one my best friends from elementary school who got to travel and cover the Detroit Tigers. I was editor of the high school newspaper and did very well in English and humanities classes, even though I ended up following the math and science path into engineering school.

I started blogging in 2005 and have produced about about 3000 posts. I've had one book published and I'm working on a second book – with a co-author this time, so let's call that 1.5 books. It's hard work writing a book. It's also hard, at times, to make the transition from blog writing to book writing, especially because, as a Lean thinker, you have to wonder if the whole publishing model is broken beyond repair?

It can be hard to transition from blogging to book writing, for a number of reasons. I considered, on a number of occasions, going on “blog hiatus” for a while to help focus on the book. There's both the time commitment of blogging (although it's not as much time as people think) and the mindset differences.

I end up not really being able to put the blog aside because, for other reasons:

  • It's a chance to practice writing about ideas in small batches, getting feedback and input from readers (like this post).
  • It's mentally stimulating, so writing a blog post can serve as some practice swings in the on-deck circle before jumping into book writing.
  • I really enjoy the interaction with readers, seeing how others build on your ideas, how people challenge your thinking, or the “great post” comments via the blog or Twitter. You just don't get that kind of interaction from a book (other than amazon reviews, emails, or  failed attempts at building reader community)

One challenge is that blogging allows a more personal, less formal, and less polished mode of writing than a book would require. A blog post is often a stream of consciousness, while a book has to be structured, organized, and edited – keeping the reader (as customer) in mind to ask, “will they understand this?” and “will this make sense?” as you're writing.

Below is a table that summarizes some of the differences between blogging and booking (OK, that isn't really a word, but this is just a blog). I won't elaborate on all of the table items unless you ask a question in the comments, I can answer or write a post elaborating on a comparison.

   Blog    Book
 Small batches  Large Batches
 Dynamic / “Kaizen”  Fixed / static
 Iterative / “agile”  “Waterfall” method
 Informal  Formal
 Solo  Silo
 Multimedia (videos)  Text & photos
 Low credibility?  High credibility?
 Hyperlinking easy  Endnotes hard to follow up on
 Indirect monetization  Traditional monetization
 Temporary / transitory  Lasting / permanent
 Interactive reader discussion  Little direct feedback


I've talked with a number of other lean authors and I think we tend to agonize over  the same things and we get frustrated by the same things. This is regardless of the publisher, it seems. Traditional publishers all seem to have about the same model and processes.

For one, a book is a “large batch” of ideas, if there ever was one. Bob Emiliani, who self-publishes, maybe has the right idea by publishing a large quantity of relatively small books, in more of a continuous flow than writing one massive tome that can be intimidating or even hard to carry around (I'm resisting the urge to link to anybody on that last point).

The disadvantage of a large batch book is that you lose out on opportunities to get feedback and to iterative and improve the book, as a “lean startup” might do with it's product and even it's business model. Publishers take on a large part of the risk in deciding to go forward with a book project, not knowing if it might sell 150 copies or 15,000. I guess that's why they earn more on a book than the author does. I'm not criticizing him for this, but Eric Ries chose to go the traditional publisher route with his upcoming book The Lean Startup.

When you throw a book out there, it's pretty permanent. There's not much opportunity to practice “kaizen” on a book, which is hard for a lean thinker. The first printing of Lean Hospitals had some defects and they couldn't be corrected until the 2nd printing. With an e-book (yet alone a blog), you can release updated and improved versions as often as you want (which also seems like the “lean startup” practice of “continuous deployment” of new software code). I am now, almost 3 years after the original release, going to have a significantly improved (I think) and updated 2nd edition of Lean Hospitals coming out later this year.

In another parallel to software development, traditional book publishing is very much a “waterfall” development process where the book draft kinda burps along in a single big batch across the silos. I was dumbfounded with the first book when I was told to wait until the entire manuscript was done before throwing it over the wall to the publisher for editing. No small batches, no editing a few chapters at a time. My employer at the time actually paid for a wonderful editor to work with me in more of a continuous flow (Cheryl Fenske, I highly recommend her).

Editing, publishing, and printing the books is a “batch-and-queue” process if there ever was one. If it takes 6 to 9 months from manuscript submission to books being sold (I heard 10 months from another author recently), how much of that 10 months is actual “value adding” time? Most of it is waiting time. Ironic for lean books!

Now, none of this is a criticism of any of the individuals involved in publishing, especially the wonderful hard-working people who are involved in my book projects. But, much like the individual nurses in a hospital, they are great people working in an oft-fundamentally broken system.

The whole value stream needs to be rethought. The author who was told “10 months” lead time by a traditional publisher decided to go the self publishing route to get her material out there (something that can be done immediately with a blog!).

Todd Sattersten is one author who is taking a fresh approach, with a tech book publisher, O'Reilly (see an article that talks about the project and the use of “agile” software development methods).

His new book is “Every Book is a Startup.” He's not just writing a book, he's experimenting with a new business model, taking lessons from “lean startups” and other cutting edge development practices.

You can buy the book today for $4.99. Well, it's an e-book – and it's only 2 chapters so far. But if you buy the electronic version of the book, you will get free updates as the book progresses. If you wait, the price of the e-book goes up over time up until the point the print edition comes out. I bought in early, so I'm like an “angel investor” in this project.

I'd encourage you to follow his progress. I hope he succeeds and I hope we have more innovation in publishing. I love books – which is exactly the reason why we need to save books by experimenting with new models, the way Todd is.

Maybe one thing that's out of whack is the current “value stream”:

Pitch book –> Book gets acquired –> Write book –> Edit book –> Rework book –> Promote book –> Sell book

There are more silos than flow. The process of producing a book might even be more siloed than healthcare.

Maybe “sell book” comes WAY too late in the process. I love how Eric Ries says one of the main ideas of the “Lean Startup” is to not waste the precious time of software developers by having them build a product that nobody wants. So the “Lean Startup” aims to get to market early with a “minimum viable product.” That's Todd's first two chapters (or that's his hypothesis that two chapters is both minimum and viable).

Eric Ries talks about “technical risk” (can you do it?) versus “market risk” (SHOULD you do it?). Most books “can” be written. But should they? If we move the “sell book” (to real customers, not just to the publisher) earlier in the process, is that better for everyone? If books had to be funded by pre-orders (sort of the way political candidates gauge their viability through early donors), would some authors not move forward if it appeared they didn't have a market? Can you always predict the market, particularly for first time authors? How many authors would plow ahead with a book even if it seemed a market wasn't there? There is a huge intrinsic motivation to write a book beyond the market and “ROI” and there's less financial investment required in a book than a startup.

Should writers continue to go the traditional book route, when there are so many new ways to get your material out there faster in ways that can ensure (or improve) quality? Yes, saying you have a book published provides a certain cachet (but should it, if it's all about the ideas?). Many of the income opportunities from a book come from indirect activities (like speaking and consulting), rather than the book itself. The future relevance of books and publishers?

Your thoughts? As a reader, how much are you willing to participate in experiments with new publishing and purchasing models? I'm going to invite other authors I know to chime in as well.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. A lot of what you touch on here, Seth Godin also commented on before launching the Domino Project. He has several posts, but this is probably one of the better synopsis: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/08/moving-on.html

    It’s an interesting topic, not only in how wasteful the process is, but how the market is changing the demand for traditional books and allows readers to focus on content (via Kindle/Nook/iPad) or the comfort of traditional packaging. Just as I don’t print out blog posts to read, I also couldn’t imagine reading “Moby Dick” on an iPad (though my IT friend says otherwise).

    • Thanks for sharing the link to Seth’s post.

      Amongst the waste in the publishing process is the high percentage of printed books that are destroyed because they go unsold and are sent back to the publisher. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 25 to 50% of all books printed. Talk about a “push production” model that leads to a lot of waste. On-demand printing might seem like the “lean” way to go ultimately, but as with many disruptive technologies, it has had it’s early problems (which I presume are being resolved over time). And e-books are gloriously waste-free in that sense, being just bits.

      Godin brings up a good point on the role of publishers for first-time authors versus established authors. I was fortunate (and I remain grateful to them) that my publisher approached me to write a book (based on a referral and my blog writing).

      A blogger with an established audience could probably start without a publisher more successfully than somebody who doesn’t already have an audience. It seems that a risk to a traditional publisher is the author who jumps ship after having one book published in the traditional form. How do publishers avoid that? Higher royalties? Better collaboration through the process?

  2. As a published author (traditional route), the dynamics are shifting.

    It used to be the author needed the publisher, or how else did you get your book printed? The publisher had access to the “means of production” and they controlled access to customers (and retailers).

    It was also the case that publishers needed authors, or else there was no content.

    So the terms of the contracts and equation (author gets 10 to 15%, gets paid slowly, etc.) were based on that old balance.

    But the balance has shifted. The publishers still need authors (as content doesn’t generate itself).

    The authors, however, no longer need the publishers as much. We can publish to blogs, self publish on kindle, do on-demand printing and get listed on amazon this week if you wanted to.

    If you already have an audience, you don’t need the publisher. The balance has shifted.

    The contract terms with publishers have not adjusted to reflect this balance.

    They need to pay a higher percentage to authors, they need to move faster to get your product to market (get “leaner?”), and they frankly need to treat authors better than they seem to today.

    It smells like the Big Three automakers keeping their heads in the sand about the global competition they were entering into back in the 70s and 80s.

  3. Hi Mark – I am quite sure that the first edition of Better Thinking, Better Results was the first book on Lean management that was made using print-on-demand technology beginning in late 2002. Sell one, make one!

  4. Great post, Mark. It’s an important topic for anyone who writes or wants to write.

    Publishing’s not alone in how slowly it responds and adapts to the changing environment. Entire industries have died as a result. Publishing is as heavily silo’d as healthcare, and as in need of a complete revamp. A simple value stream map would reveal the vast amount of waste that exists in the typical book acquisition, production, and sales cycle.

    As an author, I long for an experience where I don’t have to undergo SIGNIFICANT rework because everyone wasn’t on the same page at the publisher. Or because the publisher wasn’t clear what they bought and/or wanted. I often wonder if they realize that we write more or less for free and that the product they sell has resulted from a SIGNIFICANT time investment that impacts one’s pocketbook and his/her significant others. Unless you make it to the bestseller list and/or sell a ton of foreign rights, you write to build credibility and share expertise. Granted publishers are taking a calculated risk, but “calculated” is the operative word.

    To remain successful, it’s vital for all businesses and industries to ask: “What value do we bring to the table?” Publishers need to take a good hard look at their approach, their processes, and how editorial, production, and marketing work (or don’t work) together or authors will increasingly go the way of self-publishing or a modified approach where it’s easier and faster. Many companies have studied their suppliers carefully, then insourced. Similarly, savvy authors are paying very close attention to what works and what doesn’t.

    Bound books and traditional publishing hold a special place in my heart, but every time I embark on a new project, the question arises: “Should I stick with tradition or is it time to join the ranks of those who are rewriting the rules of publishing?” One day I may choose the latter. I pray the publishing industry doesn’t force my hand.

  5. Hi Mark, great post. I’ve often wondered about the pros and cons of traditional book publishing, but there still seems a value in having a book standing on the shelf (nostaligia of my generation? I’m 37). I publised my blog (one year of posts) as a book just for myself (perhaps blogpost will cease at one point and I loose all my posts?). But then the site offered to sell that book to anyone who is interested, which felt weird: a blog as a book. Sold only one… But as you say, at least no unnessary prints needed to be destroyed. The price is higher for a print-to-demand though…

    Reading your list of differences between blogs and books, it seems that you see relatively few advantages in book publishing. it makes me wonder: what drives you to write another book?

    I’ve published (with other) one book so far and I’m working on my second. For me, I’d like to add to the pros for books: that you spent more time on a book chapter, which gives it a different level of quality (not always better, but a different kind). Also, others still tend to give you more credit for having published a book, than being a blogger. Perhaps because it’s more difficult to get a book published and/or it’s because it takes time to shift our thinking.

    Both my books are cooperations with many other authors. Each chapter is written by a different hospital. That’s a project which is difficult to achieve (at this time) in a blogging format.

    I think blogging and new forms of publishing will take over traditional book publishing. E-reading might take over book printing fast in the next years, but I think it will take quite a while before complete book publishing will really become like the LP’s in music.

    • Marc, I think there are only a few advantages in the book column.

      One is the credibility factor. Whether it’s fair or not, people would much rather introduce a speaker who has a book than just saying “he’s a blogger.” But as blogging gets more reputable as a writing format, that may shift.

      You’re right that more effort goes into writing and reworking and editing and tweaking a chapter of a book. A blog post *could* have that amount of effort and love put into it (I rarely edit or recraft a blog post, for better or for worse).

      But to John Hunter’s point, a lot of the value a publisher adds can be gotten through freelancers – editing, graphic design, marketing & PR, etc.

  6. The publishing model is about as broken as can be. They add value in editing (but that can easily be separated from them – I believe many just use independent editors anyway). I suppose they can help with marketing. A few decades ago marketing and distribution were barriers to alternative solutions. I can’t really see much need for traditional publishers anymore myself. If I felt like writing a book I would just do it myself, pay an editor, publish and “distribute” it myself. If I went with paper at all (I probably would if I thought I could sell much, just because, it wouldn’t seem real if it was just electrons), I would just use some print on demand shop to deal with all the logistics. I can imagine the bookstore process may also be pretty broken so getting copies into stores may be a challenge (if it wasn’t worth the hassle, I wouldn’t, if it was, I would outsource that hassle to someone).

    I couldn’t believe how broken the publishing process was decades ago, when hearing my father and his author friends talk about it. And they haven’t done much to improve. Publishers and those responsible for the closing process on home loans have done about the worst jobs of improving of any groups I can think of.

  7. Hi Mark, As blogger and someone who thinks about writing a book at some point this perspective is great. For now I am so busy just having fun that a book isn’t in the cards today but I like to hear about the process and how you use the blog to get (potential) customer feedback. I have to think that is a positive.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. I’ve been involved in just about every type of publishing there is, including marketing and publishing lean books and attempting to make the value stream within a traditional publisher leaner. I should include video, journals, and blogging in my experience. I’ve written and self-published a book using a traditional book manufacturer, after closely examining self-publishing services like Lulu. I’ve ranted about recent books and publishers’ shortcomings in my blog (http://leanreflect.blogspot.com/2010/10/book-review-target-cost-management.html). I could write a book about what I’ve learned in 30+ years in the industry — wait, sounds like Todd’s already done that.

    It would take a long dialogue to explore and share the insider information I’ve gained about the publishing process with you authors, who are usually regarded more as outsiders than partners. I would love to do it, however.

    I think there’s an opportunity in the market for a new type of entrepreneurial publisher that would partner with authors and share risk and revenue, not leaving each author out there on their own to promote their books — which even the publishers that claim to promote their books will do. There are a lot of reasons why the cost/revenue share between publisher and author is the way it is, and authors and customers are typically not familiar with it. Would a new model change that?

    I’m strongly in favor of a discussion on a new model, perhaps on the lean startup foundation.

    As for editors, there are two types: substantive editors and copyeditors. The copyeditor gets spelling and grammar correct – very important. Substantive editors help get the book’s organization right, helps distinguish between material that belongs in the book and material that doesn’t, playing the role of the reader and pointing out where the “product” doesn’t yet meet the promise, and advising on the book elements: table of contents, prefaces and forewords, endnotes or footnotes, bibliographies, indexes (or indices, if you wish. I find that some publishers seem to be skimping on the substantive editing, and using copyeditors who make changes for the worse because they are not familiar with industry terminology.

    The only reason to wait for the end of the book is that the book can change in the process of writing (see Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata on why a list of action items is a waste). But that is what a first draft is for. The editorial and production process could begin in partnership with the author on a flow basis once the book were in a pretty-close-to-final manuscript basis.

    Book manufacturing has been a big reason why publishing takes so long, but they are starting to bring lean to the process – Thomson-Shore being an example I’ve written about. They know that books-on-demand are disrupting the industry, and are adapting their strategies.

    I suggest we might take each phase of publishing (value stream) and explore why it’s been what it’s been, alternatives that are evolving and how good they are, how to make niche publishing profitable, how silos can be broken down, and who would take the risk to become the next lean publisher.

  9. Hi Mark,
    I enjoyed reading this blog post the ensuing discussion. I share your frustrations over the long time it takes to get a (paper) book published.
    After completing my Lean book, Sustain Your Gains, I went on to write a novel, The Noah Option. I discovered a quick turnaround printer, 48hrbooks.com, and yes, they do print in 48 hours! Shipping time is additional. Also, Amazon’s new subsidiary, CreateSpace, is good for POD book production and Kindle conversions. Marketing and distribution are still the big value add for publishers, however. I am still learning about this.

  10. Great discussion. We scratched the surface of this topic at Seattle Lean Camp where Todd Satterson led a session on lean publishing.
    I think Karen hits the nail on the head. There’s room for a lean start-up publisher to bridge the gaps between traditional mass-market publishers and print-on-demand self-publishing.
    Mass market, in some form, will always be needed where the volume of copies of book exceeds what POD can handle. Self-publishing will also be an increasingly important player.
    One of the weaknesses of self-publishing for the customer is that there is no “filter” on the quality of books published-a role traditionally played by publishers and literary agents.
    Can a new partnership between authors and lean publishers, such as Karen described, bridge that gap to give readers the quality of work they want to read while making a broader range of authors and ideas available than was possible under the old model?
    I believe so.

  11. FYI… Real Lean Volume Five contains a chapter titled “Lean Writing and Publishing” (pp. 129-140). It describes my process and includes a value steam map of how I write and publish books (96 days lead time and 171 hours of processing time). It also describes how Lean principles (Table 1) and practices (Table 2) apply to writing and publishing.

  12. Mark – your thoughts on the publishing industry remind me of the auto industry in the 1980s & 1990s and more recently the music industry. The digital world and Web 2.0 have changed everything.
    Remember when you had to buy an entire CD or older yet an album just to get a particular song you wanted (I date myself).
    Many new value streams are emerging and the publishing industry can either accept that and figure out how to work in them or deny they exist and get pushed aside.

  13. Al makes a point that shows that the longer you are in an industry, the less prepared you are to see a tsunami of change coming your way, such as in the music industry. My husband and his partner, Cello-Bella – let’s give them a plug – have some professional sounding songs on iTunes and a couple of other music distribution sites. He made the recordings in the basement, with equipment that cost only a couple of thousand dollars. Just the same way, as many of you have pointed out, books can be issued the same way.

    The digital book is within reach of just about anyone who can use a Word template and some consumer-level photo editing software. The printed book is still another matter, since the ultra-short run books still tend to fall apart after a couple of readings. But the technology is making it so that the higher-end book manufacturers can do press runs as short as 500 copies, and will be down to 250 in the foreseeable future. Those books being destroyed are likely in the consumer market, where you have to have piles of a book in a big store to make any impression. Will Borders’s closing challenge that? Publishing is the only industry I know of where books can be returned from the store to the publisher for a full refund. There’s no incentive to buy small – what publisher is going to limit the number of copies you buy?

  14. I’ve been toying with the idea of self-publishing for awhile now. I started a novel several years ago and it’s finally entering my last round of editing. I’m struggling with the gauntlet of requirements traditional publishers require — including the insane amount of time between delivering a manuscript and hearing a decision.

    That being said, I am about to start work on a software development book (specifically about the psychology and interactions of productive teams) and I know for certain that I want to publish that particular work myself.

    For science fiction (my novel), I know I have few immediate followers and each reader would be a battle to get. When it comes to writing about software, however, I’ve been gathering momentum and readership with every blog post; so, I feel confident that I can sell a few hundred copies myself.

    In the end, it feels like it’s all a trade off.

  15. It’s also a false argument to assume that quality is better because of the involvement of publishers and their army of editors.

    This error appears on PAGE ONE of the 1st edition of my “Lean Hospitals” book AND it appears in the 1st pages of the yet-unreleased 2nd edition:

    The word “prestigious” is spelled incorrectly as “prestigious.”

    It will be fixed in the 2nd edition. I, as the author, will make sure to that.


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